At ICAV, we strive to elevate adoptee artists as their works can often portray what words struggle to convey. Consistent with this, at the recent 9 September K-Box Adoptee Takeover Night, Ra Chapman and myself wanted the evening to be a celebration of Australian intercountry adoptee artists. We were able to present some of their work in a printout as a ZINE which you can view here:
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Other Adoptee Artists
We’ve had some other incredible intercountry adoptee artists present their works at ICAV over the years. Here is a compilation of what has been shared. Click on the image and it will take you to their blog with artworks.
Next week on 4-8 July, the 104 signatory countries of the Convention of 29 May 1993 on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption will gather online together at the Special Commission meeting to discuss Post Adoption and Illicit / Illegal Adoption matters. It is a significant event that happens usually every 5 years and this marks the first time there will be broad representation of intercountry adoptees attending as Observers. Historically since 2005, International Korean Adoptee Association (IKAA), the network representing Korean adoptee interests has been the only adoptee organisation to attend. In 2015, Brazil Baby Affair (BBA) was the second adoptee led organisation to attend with IKAA. Due to COVID, this current Special Commission meeting was postponed and over the past years, I can proudly say I have helped to spread the knowledge amongst adoptee led organisations of HOW to apply and encouraged lived experience organisations like KUMFA (the Korean mothers organisation) to represent themselves. This year, we proudly have 6 adoptee led organisations representing themselves and their communities. We have progressed!
Back in 2015, I wrote the blog titled Why is it Important to have Intercountry Adoptee Voices on this website. Many times over the years I have advocated about the importance of our voices being included at the highest levels of government discussions. So I say again, our voices are immensely important at these highest levels of adoption policy, practice and legislation discussions.
Some critics might say we change nothing in intercountry adoption by attending these meetings, however, I would like to suggest that merely seeing us represent our adult selves in numbers, helps governments and authorities realise a few key points:
We grow up! We don’t remain perpetual children.
We want to have a say in what happens to future children like ourselves.
We help keep them focused on “who” we really are! We are not nameless numbers and statistics. We are alive people with real feelings, thoughts and a myriad of experiences. Their decisions MATTER and impact us for life and our future generations!
We help them learn the lessons from the past to make things better for the future and remedy the historic wrongs.
We are the experts of our lived experience and they can leverage from our input to gain insights to do their roles better and improve the way vulnerable children are looked after.
One of the advantages of the framework of the Hague Convention, is that it creates opportunities like the upcoming Special Commission where adoptees can have visibility and access to the power structures and authorities who define and create intercountry adoption. Domestic adoptees lack this framework at a global scale and are disadvantaged in having opportunities that bring them together to access information and people which is important in advocacy work.
I’m really proud of our team of 8 who are representing ICAV at this year’s meeting. I have ensured we cover a range of adoptive and birth countries because it’s so important to have this diversity in experiences. Yes, there’s still room for improvement, but I’ve been limited by people’s availability and other commitments given we all do this work as volunteers. We are not paid as government or most NGO participants at this upcoming meeting. We get involved because we are passionate about trying to improve things for our communities! Equipping ourselves with knowledge on the power structures that define our experience is essential.
Huge thanks to these adoptees who are volunteering 5 days/nights of their time and effort to represent our global community!
Abby Forero-Hilty (adopted to the USA, currently in Canada, born in Colombia; Author of Colombian adoptee anthology Decoding Our Origins, Co-founder of Colombian Raíces; ICAV International Representative)
I’m not expecting great changes or monumental happenings at this upcoming meeting, but it’s the connections we make that matter whether that be between ourselves as adoptees and/or with the various government and NGO organisations represented. Change in this space takes decades but I hope for the small connections that grow over time that accumulate and become a positive influence.
The next few posts will be sharing some of the key messages some of our team put together in preparation for this Hague Special Commission meeting on Post Adoption Support and what the community via these leaders, wish to share. Stay tuned!
We still have a long way to go to reach the wider public and educate them about the inherent trauma and losses in relinquishment and adoption. To assist with this, I’m trying to connect into spaces that are not adoption specific and share our message.
I recently sent our Video for Professionals to an organisation Stella that provides medical treatment for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) called Stellate Ganglion Block (SGB). Who knows, perhaps it might be effective for some adoptees? Our trauma from relinquishment often has no language because it happened to us as young children or babies, so I am constantly on the look out for new treatments or options that can help give relief to the ongoing emotional minefield that many adoptees live. SGB works on the premise of dampening down our fight/flight response that results from ongoing trauma.
Stella’s chief psychologist, Doc Shauna Springer and the Head of Partnerships, Valerie Groth, both chatted with me and watched our videos. Until then, both had no idea as clinicians about the traumas inherent in relinquishment and adoption. They are inspired to join with me to help educate the public, so here is the short 30min podcast interview they conducted to help facilitate this. Click on the image to listen to the podcast.
If you already know about the traumas inherent in adoption, nothing in this will be new, but if you want a podcast that helps others understand from a first learner perspective, perhaps you might consider sharing it with them.
We also have our compiled list of resources as a starting point for those interested to learn more about the connection between trauma and adoption from experts all over the world.
This piece was written for the Benevolent Society: Post Adoption Resource Centre newsletter. Their centre provides post adoption support to adoptees in New South Wales (NSW), Australia.
In the late 1990s, I was in my mid 20s and searching for support as an adoptee born overseas, outside of Australia. At that time, I didn’t even have the language to understand how adoption had affected me, I only knew that I had struggled and was reaching out to try and find support somewhere. I came across the Post Adoption Resource Centre (PARC) in my search but I had initially tried the AA type programs, thinking there must be an “Adoptees Anonymous” somewhere to join into. There wasn’t, so when I found PARC led by Sarah Armstrong, I went and joined in with one of their adoptee days where you meet face to face and talk. PARC took us through guided sessions. I found it really useful but the biggest thing I noticed was there was nothing discussing looking different to one’s family/community, nothing on searching and returning to an overseas country, and certainly nothing on racism or the issues I lived as a person of colour adopted into a white society. So I spoke to the PARC team afterwards and asked if there was anything available more specific to my experience. I didn’t even know the term “intercountry adoption” then. All I knew was that I enjoyed meeting the adoptees but they were all born in Australia except me. So I still felt different and quite alone. I enquired about whether there were other adoptees like me reaching out to PARC. They told me yes, occasionally. I said, “Well if you ever run something for us, I’d love to know about it and if you have those adoptees wanting to connect to someone like them, pleas share them my name and contacts.”
And so some time later, PARC did followup and contact me. They asked me if I wanted to be involved in their new book project where we as transracial adoptees could share our stories to help people better understand our lived experience. I said of course and I jumped at the opportunity. I remember trying to figure out what I’d write about, but once I started, it all flowed.
It was quite a lengthy process to get our book project published, finished, and launched. I think it was around 3 years from start to end? But during that process I ended up being honoured to meet the fellow adoptees who also shared in our book, The Colour of Difference. Participating in the book changed my life and PARC had been sharing my name/contacts to adoptees just like me, so over time, once the project finished, I made up my mind that I would volunteer and continue on from the connections we had made, to form a network to support each other.
So from the almost 30 adoptees from the project and those early days, I built what was then known as the InterCountry Adoptee Support Network (ICASN). We focused on sharing our stories, connecting to each other, and meeting face to face in capital cities. We had State Representatives to facilitate social contact and Country of Origin Representatives to help adoptees with their birth country specific resources and needs. From those early days we connected in closely with the various post adoption organisations around Australia and participated in education events, utilising our lived experience to help inform the future adoptions.
The book had also been part of the funding from the NSW Department of Community Services (DoCS) headed up by March Griffin at the time. I connected with Mary Griffin and her team of social workers and ended up being asked to speak and share my story to their team for training. It was the most vulnerable day of my life but the lovely PARC social worker, Petrina Slaytor came with me as my support and I told my story for the first time to people who were not adoptees, but professionals. Wow, it was such an empowering experience to receive their validation and encouragement to keep doing what I was doing – sharing my story, connecting to fellow adoptees, providing a peer support space. I still have the lovely Petrina and Mary in my life today and they have been some of my most incredible supports throughout my life.
In 2014, after having a couple of years of break due to having my own young family, I decided to continue on from ICASN and to refocus and rename it InterCountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV). This was to reflect the new focus from not just peer support, but to now begin actively advocating at government levels for our needs and rights and to ask that our voices be included in all policy and legislation discussions. I could no longer ignore the very visible global issues I heard daily, after having hundreds of adult intercountry adoptees join into ICASN from all over the world. I realised I was definitely not alone in my journey but that our experiences were replicated all over the world for intercountry adoptees.
Fast forward to today in 2022, ICAV is now representing on behalf of intercountry adoptees from all over the world at international levels – The Hague and the United Nations (UN). We are advocating for our rights and needs and we are ensuring our voices are included in policy and legislation discussions that determine the future of other intercountry adoptees. Recently, I address the UN Committees on the topic of illegal and illicit adoptions from lived experience. It is such an honour to be working in collaboration with so many intercountry adoptees from all over the world.
So from a book project that PARC initiated 24 years ago, ICAV has grown to become one of the leading intercountry adoptee advocacy networks in the world.
Who would have thought that connecting into PARC, sharing my story in the book The Colour of Difference, would have made such an impact on me, and then flow onto all the adoptees who have joined into ICAV today. What a ripple effect!
Huge thanks to PARC for making this all possible! And I’m so excited to see our book being printed again and made available in hardcopy! It’s incredible to hear from adoptive parents of the newer generations who share with me what a difference it has made for them and their adoptee to read our books, The Colour of Difference, The Colour of Time, which helps to normalise our journey and educate those who want to better understand our lived experience.
To obtain a hard copy of these books, you can contact: PARC for The Colour of Difference; or ICAV for The Colour of Difference and/or The Colour of Time.
In my humble perspective, I believe the future of intercountry adoption is slowly coming to its death. I am personally happy about this, as are a vast number of adult intercountry adoptees around the world. I recognise though that not all adoptees agree with my happiness nor want to see the end of intercountry adoption. The argument they pose is probably that we have gained and benefited much and why should we stop others from having the same?
I argue that we are actively robbing countries of their most valuable resource – their children – when we take advantage, with our privilege and resources, to gain from their vulnerabilities. We need to do better – do what’s ethically right, when we know in hindsight that the random positive outcomes do not justify the huge amount of trauma that has been inflicted on so many.
We have seen some countries in Europe start to take responsibility by independently investigating the history of intercountry adoption and come to terms with the wrongs done to so many. COVID has also created a natural dampener to the trade in children, but the efforts of intercountry adoptees and our allies has been building over the past decades to culminate into a worldwide recognition that intercountry adoption as a social experiment, has not been as successful as many hoped for.
If I were to ask myself what I think the future of intercountry adoption looks like, I couldn’t lie and pretend to uphold the fantasy so many seem to have with adoption. From the lived perspective, too many of us intercountry adoptees have struggled and suffered life long consequences of being robbed of our origins, our kin, our country, culture, and language .. it is time we take an honest and critical look at what intercountry adoption truly does. It is the ONLY alternative care option that proactively severs our right to identity and family relations — except in the cases of a few countries (Vietnam, Belgium and France) who allow Simple adoption to exist .. but in reality, it is extremely rare to have a Simple intercountry adoption.
I can only gauge the future and what it brings, from where we have shifted and moved in the past 24 years that I’ve been actively involved. I have seen the massive change that my adoptee community has undergone in the 24 years I’ve been involved:
From being completely isolated from each other, to massively connected now!
From being in the fog, to totally awakened to the reality of the structures that have created our lives.
From relying on dodgy fabricated paperwork, to embracing DNA technology because it doesn’t lie.
From not wanting to engage in the politics, to now fully engaging and seeking / demanding engagement with government and authorities.
From not understand our rights, to now finding pathways to uphold our rights through the laws and demanding justice and reparation.
This is what excites me the most .. seeing the many adoptees demanding justice who are inspired by the success of the pioneers before them – adoptees like Patrick Noordoven who have fought the lack of legal pathway, studied the laws, faced the courts and created a legal pathway to demand justice and access to our truth – our right to identity. We need more of this to happen en-masse around the world!
Then what we are starting to see right now, in the past few years, is that some governments are recognising that they need to better protect themselves because they are realising they are participating in an activity and system that actively robs us of our rights – our rights to identity, origins and family. Once more governments realise the risk they bear, I believe we will see intercountry adoption become almost non existent because it’s too risky, too costly!
Intercountry adoption has always been about money: who has it, who doesn’t, who doesn’t want to lose it, who can’t afford to take the risk. While the risk in intercountry adoption was once historically gauged as low, governments and authorities supported the demand for children – but the tide on that sentiment has turned and there is no going back! I do believe one day we will look back historically on this huge social experiment called intercountry adoption and it will eventually be acknowledge on a global scale, that it was never in our best interests to be removed from our country, culture and origins and add to our traumas.
Hand in hand with this, I’m excited to see some governments start to recognise our adoptee needs and rights! In Australia we’ve been one of the few countries to be given a funded free mental health counselling service and we had a free search n reunion service. Both of these should be a minimum and a mandatory service in all post adoption for every adopting and sending country. Some countries are talking to me about our Australian model and I know other countries are starting to provide either one or both of these services.
But while I celebrate the shifts in some progressive countries, let’s not forget our families of loss still barely have any rights, and usually no access to free counselling or a searching service. I hope in the future we will start to see this change. The voices of our families of origins is still largely unheard, ignored, denied. We have to change that!
I hope intercountry adoption will become only a last resort option, as originally intended under the The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
While it is impossible to calculate exactly how many illegal and illicit adoptions have occurred into Australia, we do know we have specific cohorts of adoptees here from various countries. Ethiopia and India were the most recent countries where our programs closed due to irregularities. Our early history in the 1980s includes trafficked adoptees from Taiwan where Julie Chu was convicted of falsifying paperwork and sentenced to prison for her role as leader of the Taiwan trafficking ring.
Globally, in February this year the Netherlands suspended its intercountry adoption program due to its historic illegal and illicit adoptions. Other European countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, and Belgium have all taken steps to carefully examine their historic adoptions.
What will Australia’s response be to our own history of illicit and illegal intercountry adoptions? Australian policy makers are currently grappling with this question and the implications. For this purpose, ISS Australia and InterCountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV) are pleased to present our free webinar on this sensitive and complex topic with a focus on the voices of those with lived experience. We hope to help educate about the experience from lived perspective, how it impacts, and what impacted people want to see policy makers and professionals take into consideration.
This webinar took place on 10 November 2021 titled Lived Experience of Illegal and Illicit Adoption. We bring you Australian specific lived experience, however, this can be extrapolated to the global arena.
A huge thank you to our panelists: Professor David Smolin, Kimbra Butterworth-Smith, Annita Pring, Clement Lam (as read by his daughter, Marie Gardom).
Kimbra Butterworth-Smith has experience working in humanitarian NGOs in Australia and abroad. She is also an intercountry adult adoptee from Taiwan whose adoption was facilitated illegally by Julie Chu.
Annita Pring is an Australian adoptive mother to a Thai son.
Clement Lam Swee Seng is a retired counsellor in marriage, youth and drug addiction ministry in Malaysia. He also is a Chinese father of loss to a daughter who was sent abroad and adopted into a British adoptive family. Clement has only recently been reunited with his daughter.
Many thanks to my co-presenters at ISS Australia, CEO Peter van Vliet and Deputy CEO Damon Martin.
I’m very excited and feeling hopeful after hearing Belgium’s recent news, that their Minister has announced his intention to ask Parliament to suspend all adoptions for the next 2 years as a result of their investigation into intercountry adoptions.
Surrounded by incredible adoptee leaders around the world, I know how much effort has gone into getting intercountry adoptee rights to where we are today. News like this does not in any way solve or fix the issues we face but it is at least the beginning of having recognition of the wrongs done — with governments and authorities stepping up to confront the truth that we’ve been talking about for decades. Acknowledgement is the first step of many!
Belgium isn’t the first adoptive country to do so. The Netherlands announced their moratorium on all intercountry adoptions earlier this year in February and published their report. Switzerland announced their report from investigating past practices relating to Sri Lankan adoptions and they are being urged to provide reparation to the victims. Sweden also announced their intention to investigate their illegal intercountry adoptions. And yesterday, the Belgium Minister announced his recommendations to be considered by Parliament. You can read here the full Expert Panel report.
But for some countries we still have work to do
It seems that finally some governments are listening to our lived experience and have decided to no longer turn a blind eye. But even though these 4 have listened, I want to also remind you that there has been much work and years of effort gone into other countries who still haven’t come to the “acknowledgement table”. In France, the adoptees there have had huge support in their petition to have the French Parliament conduct an investigation into their historic intercountry adoptions. In Denmark, the adoptees from Chile have been working with the government to have their adoptions investigated.
In my adoptive country Australia, I have been speaking out and advocating for supports for impacted adoptees and families and for recognition of the abuses in Australia for many years. In fact, it’s been over a decade already and I remember in my early years representing adoptees at NICAAG where Julia Rollings (adoptive mum) and I tabled this issue at the beginning in 2008 and asked that the issue be addressed. More recently, I have also presented a small group of 8 impacted adoptees to meet with our Central Authority, DSS in 2017 asking for very specific supports. However, to this day, those adoptees have still been ignored and dismissed. Despite having very clear cases of illegal activity where perpetrators have been criminally convicted and jailed (e.g., the Julie Chu cohort in image below from Taiwan), nothing has been offered for the adoptees or their families to help them deal with the extra complexities of their illegal adoptions. It’s as if these impacted adoptees don’t exist and Australia hopes the problem will fade away while they face far more important issues, like COVID-19 or an upcoming election.
It is time authorities around the world step up and take responsibility for the processes and structures that ruptured our lives via adoption – for good and for bad.
Intercountry adoption has followed the path of domestic adoption
In intercountry adoption, we are seeing the same pattern where country after country the governments are acknowledging the wrongs in their domestic adoptions. Canada leads the way by providing financial compensation to their victims of the Sixties Scoop. Australia has already provided a formal apology for the women and babies who were impacted under the Forced Adoption era — but are still as yet to be offered any form of compensation. Australia also just announced their compensation for the Indigenous Aboriginals who were forcibly removed and placed into white families under the Stolen Generation. It is interesting that the Australian government can acknowledge these past practices but doesn’t recognise the very close similarities with our historic intercountry adoptions. Ireland as a government has only this year recognised the wrongs and provided a formal apology to the mothers and children who suffered in Babies Homes from forced adoptions. Ireland is also baulking at offering compensation.
What about our birth countries?
Very few of our birth countries involved in our illicit and illegal adoptions have taken any action either. Guatemala, Ethiopia and Russia are the main ones that come to my memory where they stopped all intercountry adoptions because of irregularities — but they too have failed to provide impacted adoptees with services or compensation to recognise the wrongs done to them. Some of them have sentenced perpetrators but their sentence rarely ever matches the depths of their crime.
Let’s have a quick overview at how perpetrators have been sentenced to date:
That the majority of perpetrators in intercountry adoption get away with mild convictions demonstrates the lack of legal framework to protect us. And despite the fact that very few perpetrators in intercountry adoption are ever caught, let alone sentenced, one still has to ask, where is the support for the victims?
The American Samoan Adoptees Restitution Trust is the ONLY restorative justice program I’ve come across, establishing a fund provided by the perpetrators to facilitate connection to birth family and country. But the funds provided have been extremely limiting considering how many people are impacted and out of those impacted adoptees, only 1 was enabled to return to their natural family. Have governments even considered whether intercountry adoptees wish to be repatriated back to their birth country?
What level of responsibility should governments bear?
Many articles have been written about the problems in intercountry adoption via the irregularities in processing us for intercountry adoption, but the most critical issue that governments need to respond to, is our right to identity.
“Article 8 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) notes that a child has a right to identity including a name, a nationality and family relations. Whenever a child is deprived of one of these elements, States have an obligation to restore the child’s identity speedily. At the heart of any intercountry adoption (ICA) is the modification of a child’s identity given at birth.” — CHIP
In summary our report explains what the majority of us want. We each independently submitted our thoughts without knowing what the other was submitting. Here are the top 3 suggestions we raised :
A change to intercountry adoption laws to ensure a legal framework exists for which illicit practices can be prosecuted against. Currently there is none.
An independent investigative body so we aren’t expecting the governments and adoption authorities to “investigate” themselves. Currently that’s what happens.
Fully funded support services for victims. Currently there are huge gaps in general post adoption supports let alone supports specific to being trafficked. Not one country in the world currently provides any sort of trafficking support for adoptees or their families — both adoptive and natural, but especially for natural families who rarely have a voice on the global arena.
I observe the Netherlands who are still working on their National Centre of Expertise might be including support services specific to trafficking victims, so too it appears from the Belgium report they are trying. But supports for trafficking victims needs to be comprehensive not just a DNA or a general counselling service. In our report, we list in full what this support needs to include: legal aid; counselling; financial aid; funded lived experience support groups; family tracing; DNA testing and professional genealogy services; travel support; language classes; translation services; mediation services; culture and heritage supports.
Why can’t adoption be a “happily ever after” story?
People mistakenly think that intercountry adoptees have to be unhappy in their adoption to want to fight for justice. It is not true.
We can be happy in our adoptive life and country but also be unhappy with how our adoptions were conducted and rightfully expect that everything be done to restore our original identities and help us to reconnect with our natural families who have lost us via intercountry adoption.
Our voices have been fighting for decades for our right to origins, to make amends for our lost identity, to have the illicit and illegal intercountry adoptions recognised for what they are – the commodification of children. We need this crazy system to stop, it’s been going on for too long. We are not a small number, estimates vary but we definitely are in the hundreds of thousands globally and possibly a few million.
It’s time for the truth and hopefully long term, we might see some reparative and restorative justice for us and our families. In the meantime, myself and fellow adoptee leaders continue to work hard for our communities globally! Onward and upward! I hope one day to be able to write about our “happily ever after” story, once we get justice and recognition for the wrongs done.
To know your parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, and grandparents …
To know your medical history; whether your mother died of cancer, your father suffered heart problems, whether your grandmother had diabetes …
To know who you look like, where your traits come from, whether your face in the mirror is a reflection of someone else ..
To know your birth story, date, time, season of the year, what hospital you were born in …
To know your country of birth, culture, heritage, language, customs, religion …
To be surrounded by people who look like you racially …
To know your origins is a privilege!
These are the things I don’t take for granted because I didn’t have any of these whilst growing up. I was born in one country, adopted to another, by a family of different race. I’m a transracial intercountry adoptee. I’ve spent a huge portion of my life wondering, searching, trying to learn about my origins.
In my community of intercountry adoptees – to know your origins is definitely a privilege!
The desire to know my origins is an innate and fundamental human need (and right).
My need to know my origins is akin to your need to breath air that keeps you alive.
We only know our origins are important when we don’t have it, or access to it. For people like me, this is our daily lived experience!
As an intercountry adoptee, I live my whole life trying to find who I come from and why I was given up / stolen.
It’s really hard to know how to go forward in life if I don’t know how and why I came to be in this unnatural situation.
My life did not start at adoption! I have a genetic history, generations of people before me who contributed to who I am.
We cannot pretend in this world of adoption and family formation that genetics does not matter, it does – significantly; I am not a blank slate to be imprinted upon; there are consequences to this pretence and it shows in the statistics of our higher rates of adoptee youth suicide!
One of most shared experiences amongst adoptees whom I connect with, is the topic of “feeling all alone”, “like an alien” and yet human beings are not meant to be isolated. We are social beings desiring connection.
Separation from my natural origins and the knowledge of these, left me disconnected and lost in a fundamental way.
My life has been spent trying to reconnect – firstly with my inner self, then with the outer self, and with those around me, searching for a sense of belonging.
As an adoptee, I can be given all the material things in the world but it did not fix the hole that my soul feels, when it has nowhere and no-one to belong to, naturally.
My substitute family did not equate to a natural sense of belonging.
I searched for my origins because my innate feelings and experience of isolation and loss drove me to find where I came from and to make sense of how I got to be here.
I was asked to speak about the lifelong impacts of identity loss. So I shared my story and some statements from fellow adoptees to highlight our experience.
I am one of these children who has not had my identity protected. Children like me, grow up. We don’t stay children forever – and we can have opinions and thoughts about the structures, processes, policy and legislations that impact us and create our lives. I am honoured to be asked to represent just one small group of us with lived experience, that the forum represents as “children from alternative care options”.
I was adopted from Vietnam during the war in 1973. The war ended in April 1975. My adoptive father flew into the country while it was still at war and flew me out as a 5 month old baby. My papers were supposed to follow but they never arrived and my adoption was not finalised.
I lived for almost 17 years in Australia without an identity. It was the family joke that I made the perfect spy because I didn’t exist. I was keenly aware of not existing and having no paperwork – it made me feel insecure, insignificant, unseen.
The practical impacts of not having any identity papers for 17 years were that I could not apply for a passport and travel outside Australia, I could not get my drivers licence, I could not apply for anything like a bank account and, more importantly, I was not followed up on since arriving in the country by any child welfare authority nor the adoption agency.
Finally when I was 16 years old, I wanted to get my drivers licence so my adoptive parents were finally propelled to take action. They went though the adoption process again, this time through the State not a private agency, and my adoption was formalised just before I turned 17 years old.
I was given a brand new Australian identity. It does not state my Vietnamese identity only recognises the country that I was born in, Vietnam.
Via this 17-year-late process of intercountry adoption, was there an official check for any of my identity documents in Vietnam? Or a check to confirm my adoptability or relinquishment? These questions remain unanswered for me. I was certainly never offered other options like having help to look for my origins in Vietnam .. I was only ever told that being adopted was THE solution so I’d be able to exist and have some sort of identity.
In my mid 20s – 30s, I spent over a decade trying to obtain my identity and adoption papers from Vietnam. Via my ICAV network, I came across an ex-policeman who had helped a few other Vietnamese adoptees. He somehow found what appears to be a Vietnamese birth certificate, and he took a blurry photo and sent it to me.
When I traveled to Vietnam in 2019, I went to the place where that document was said to be kept, only to be told the usual story – a flood or natural disaster destroyed ALL paperwork from that whole year. They have nothing for me. I visited the hospital where I was apparently born, only to be told I could not access my mother’s file without her permission – what a vicious cycle! I visited the police station precinct where the stamp on the birth certificate identifies it is held, only to be also told they wouldn’t help me. I asked for help during my visit to the central authority of Vietnam and was told to fill out a form via the website — which is in Vietnamese, which I can’t read or write in. There are so many barriers to being able to access my identity. Language is a HUGE one!
I have since done a few DNA tests and had genealogists help me, but that hasn’t been too successful either.
This struggle to find our identity, is very common for an intercountry adoptee like myself and is definitely worse for those of us who have been adopted out of a war torn or crisis filled country. In the rush to help “rescue” children like myself, processes are bypassed or sped up and vital information gets lost.
Our ICAV Community
Feeling isolated for most of my childhood, in my mid 20s I founded our international network ICAV that provides peer support to intercountry adoptees like myself who struggle just like I did. But I am only one voice amongst hundreds of thousands globally, so it’s important you hear more than just my voice!
I asked the ICAV community to share with you what their lifelong impacts of identity loss are. I’m going to share with you just 8 out of the 50 responses to highlight some of their experiences:
2 / 9
Many thanks to those adoptees who were willing to share!
Within our ICAV community, we could write a few books about the lifelong impacts of identity loss, many have already. There are so many more complexities that I haven’t talked about such as twins being purposively separated for adoption (not being told they’re a twin and the extra layers of impact for them of identity loss); 2nd generation adoptees (children of adoptees) and their lack of access in legislation to their inherited identity; etc. I hope my short talk helped expand your mind from the theoretical to the lived experience which speaks so loudly about the importance of identity rights for communities such as mine.